Argument

Mayhem at the Hay Adams

Security teams for two African leaders cracked skulls -- literally -- at the White House's big leadership summit. That should never be allowed to happen again.

The first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which concluded last week in Washington, convened more than 40 heads of state and top business leaders from across the African continent to discuss a host of important policy issues. But the summit, which was billed by the White House as a chance to fulfill the Obama administration's oft-repeated commitments to promoting prosperity and human well-being throughout Africa, stumbled on fulfilling its nobler tenets. From the outset, it was clear the event would focus overwhelmingly on investment and efforts to expand business opportunities, using the language of development and human rights as a moral warrant.

While a combined $33 billion of new commitments to the continent announced during the summit should be applauded, America's "no questions asked" approach, particularly when dealing with leaders who boast dubious human rights records, underscores broader problems of its dealings on the continent. And incidents just outside the cordoned confines of the gathering highlight the need to elevate issues of good governance and human rights in future summits, and to work more closely with Africa's democratic standard-bearers, not retrograde tyrants.

On the summit's second day, peaceful demonstrators converged on the swanky Hay Adams Hotel in downtown Washington, where The Gambia's long-time dictator, Yahya Jammeh, was staying. I actually dropped by early that morning and mixed with the crowd, speaking to many people who had fled the country due to death threats, political persecution, and a generally dreadful -- and deteriorating -- human rights environment. Confronted by the crowd, Jammeh's security team assaulted several protesters. The following day, the team lashed out again, kicking, stomping, and allegedly using brass knuckles against the protesters, including Fatou Camara, a prominent exile and former presidential press secretary. Camara and a colleague were sent to a local hospital for the treatment of a concussion. No arrests were made, and those alleged to have participated in the assault went home to The Gambia under the cloak of diplomatic immunity.

Also during the summit, the security detail of the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, was caught on camera attacking Congolese human rights activist Jacques Miango. The video shows a district police officer gently ushering the attacker away, while Miango struggles to get to his feet. I learned later that Miango suffered a concussion and had six teeth knocked out. Again, the attackers will likely avoid prosecution, enjoying the same impunity they so often do in their home country.

The third major incident took place on Thursday, when Swaziland's Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini publicly threatened to "strangle" two activists. Dlamini's remarks, made in an address to members of his country's parliament, were directed at labor unionist Vincent Ncongwane, and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze, who were both in Washington to attend an African civil society conference organized alongside the summit by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (my own organization), among others.

Dlamini's comments came in the immediate wake of the arbitrary imprisonment of two other prominent Swazi human rights defenders, Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu, who were each sentenced to two years in prison for criticizing the country's lack of judicial independence. Swaziland's King Mswati III, the last absolute monarch in Africa -- and a guest at the summit -- has set an ominous standard for such remarks and has provided routine license to incite violence against would-be dissenters and those who criticize his 28-year reign.

Due to the threat against their lives, both Ncongwane and Gumedze have sought refuge in an undisclosed country. In conversations, including with local journalists -- and in text messages I have seen -- the prime minister has promised to inform local chiefs, who wield enormous influence in Swaziland, to "deal with" both men and their families upon returning home.

These three instances are examples of the human rights abuses that all too often occur in countries where impunity is the norm and where human rights abuses are rampant. Demanding that the integrity of law be upheld should be a priority for the United States as it works more closely with African governments. This would go a long way toward protecting activists, as well as ensuring that the impacts of new investments are maximized: The rule of law -- and the respect for basic human rights that comes with it -- is integral to sustainable economic development, as it helps to foster safe and stable investment environments, as well as the upwardly mobile consumers that U.S. companies depend upon for growth. 

America's strength has always been promoting rights and democracy as core components of economic development, and it cannot lose sight of that. The natural constituency that the United States should be trying to reach is the more than 1 billion Africans who are now, more than ever, agitating for democracy and good governance -- not the handful of leaders who are merely enriching and entrenching themselves at the expense of their citizens, while, as witnessed during the summit, cracking down on those who stand in their way.

Unfortunately, only two hours out of the officially scheduled 53 at this year's summit were devoted to issues that fell broadly under the "governance" rubric.

Forthcoming U.S.-Africa summits -- which Obama has now publicly committed to -- can improve in three principal ways. First, in order to ensure that good governance receives its due attention (as I've written previously), the White House should invite full participation from African civil society instead of sidelining their voices in a separate event, as occurred this time around.

Second, the White House should capitalize on its commitment, announced during the summit, to double participation in its Youth African Leadership Initiative (YALI), which aims to build a new generation of ethical leaders. The YALI program was highlighted extensively throughout the summit, and its participants are likely to be featured in similar future events. However, YALI tends to focus disproportionately on Africa's business class and on individuals who are already emerging entrepreneurs, at the expense of civil society and human rights activists who operate at the grassroots level. This shortcoming could be addressed by local U.S. embassy staff becoming more proactive and deepening relationships with domestic civic actors, putting them in a position to readily identify young leaders who are able to promote the rule of law, good governance, and overall accountability, both in the corporate and government sectors.

Third, the White House should carefully scrutinize the guest lists for future summits, not inviting leaders who deny fundamental freedoms to their citizens and violate international human rights standards. America should forge closer and more cooperative ties with leaders who stand at Africa's democratic vanguard, including, most importantly, those leaders who come to power through free, fair, and credible elections. In doing so, the White House can adopt the guidelines already established in the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) -- an independent aid agency meant to encourage good governance and democratic development -- which in 2012 set a "democratic rights" hurdle that countries must pass in order to receive assistance. Instead of wasting time posing for awkward photos with shameless human rights abusers, who, like The Gambia's Jammeh, use for domestic propaganda, Obama and his successors should instead focus attention on where it is most useful: on bilateral meetings (which were missing this time) with African leaders who share U.S. core values and advance mutual interests.

Turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and helping to entrench impunity, whether on African leaders' home turf or here in the United States, is not good for democracy -- or for business. Moving forward, a mature and mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relationship can, and should, be built on that foundation in which economic development and human rights are both given the utmost attention.

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Ukraine's Oligarchs Are Still Calling the Shots

The revolutionaries of the Maidan wanted to end crony capitalism. But it's back with a vengeance.

A few weeks ago, the private Ukrainian TV channel 1+1 treated its viewers to a remarkable report on the doings of one of the country's richest men. The subject of the report was Dmitry Firtash, a telecommunications and energy magnate who was arrested in Vienna on March 12 on United States bribery charges. (He was released after paying 125 million euros in bail, and currently remains in Austria, where he is fighting extradition to the United States.) But the 1+1 report, one of many attacks on Firtash aired by the channel in recent months, spent little time illuminating the businessman's latest legal problems. Instead it dwelled on his alleged connections to a notorious Russian gangster -- whom it depicted as a close associate of Vladimir Putin.

That one of Ukraine's businesspeople might have ties to a heavyweight of Russian organized crime was probably not news to 1+1 viewers. (Ukraine's security service publicized a link between Firtash and the mafioso in question, Semyon Mogilevich, back in 2005.) More striking was the TV channel's effort to depict Firtash as a puppet of the Kremlin -- a particularly damning charge at a moment when Ukraine is struggling to fight off a Moscow-sponsored rebellion. And some viewers may have noted an odd coincidence: The man who owns 1+1, a business tycoon and politician named Igor Kolomoisky, also happens to be Firtash's most ferocious competitor.

Like Firtash, Kolomoisky belongs to the select circle of Ukraine's oligarchs, businessmen who have parlayed their enormous wealth (and media assets) into broad political influence. In an ideal world, the oligarchs would be creatures of the past. The Euromaidan revolution that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych six months ago took aim squarely at the system of brutal crony capitalism that has crippled Ukraine's post-Soviet development. Yet even now, months later, some of the oligarchs continue to thrive, building their wealth and power even as the country struggles to contain the turmoil in the east.

The oligarchs have weighed heavily on Ukraine's economic and political development for years. Most of them amassed their wealth by exploiting their closeness to those in power rather than through efficient management. The tycoons use their money to secure political influence, either by wrangling positions in government for themselves or by purchasing access to politicians. They can siphon off the profits from state-owned property or bid for government contracts without facing pesky competition. Others sell their products to government buyers at inflated prices. (In 2004, for example, top oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and one of his equally well-connected friends, Victor Pinchuk, bought a government steel plant without a competitive tender for $800 million; in a rare case of official second-guessing, the government took the plant back and sold it again, a year later, to an Indian investor for six times the price.) The oligarchs also use their ownership of media outlets to block any attempts to undermine their interests.

To be sure, the collapse of the Yanukovych regime did make life difficult for some of the oligarchs -- especially the group consisting of Yanukovych and his associates, who were known as "the Family" (in part because his own sons played a major role in its workings). Today, the Family has almost entirely lost its sway over Ukrainian politics; even members of Yanukovych's own Party of Regions routinely denounce them. Yanukovych and several of his associates (including the 20-something oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko) decamped to Russia when his government fell apart in February. Most remain there today.

Life has also become more complicated for Rinat Akhmetov, one of Yanukovych's sometime allies. The collapse of the Yanukovych regime and the outbreak of the rebellion by pro-Russian separatists have hit Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, particularly hard. Much of his wealth is tied up in factories in the industrial city of Donetsk, now the heartland of the separatist rebellion and the focus of Kiev's military campaign to restore control over the east. Work at some of his plants has ground to a halt because of the fighting.

Now, caught between the rebels and the government in Kiev, Akhmetov finds himself desperately maneuvering to find a balance between the two sides. Even as he's bent over backward to express his support for the government in Kiev (once even accusing the separatists of "genocide" in his native Donbass region), he's also been urging President Petro Poroshenko to stop bombarding Donetsk as the Ukrainian military campaign fights to take the city back. Just to be on the safe side, Akhmetov has seen fit to relocate to Kiev since the pro-Russian militants took over his hometown. (He is notably reluctant to travel to Europe, however, apparently fearing a fate similar to the one that has met Firtash.)

Akhmetov's problems have created an opening for his rivals -- above all Petro Poroshenko, the confectionary magnate (known as the "Chocolate King") whose early support for the Maidan revolutionaries made him one of Ukraine's most popular politicians and ultimately propelled him into the presidency. Despite his image as a self-made businessman whose companies produce worthy products, Poroshenko, too, qualifies as a member in good standing of the oligarchic system. Over the years, Poroshenko (net worth: $1.3 billion) has doubled as a businessman and high-ranking government official, donated cash to members of parliament, and used his own TV station to promote his personal agenda. He probably would have never risen to his current position had it not been for the lack of credible leaders among the revolutionaries.

Poroshenko's behavior after the arrest of Firtash was illuminating. At the time, immediately after Russia's annexation of Crimea and two months away from the presidential election, Poroshenko was desperate for help. So he headed off to Austria, where he visited Firtash -- just days after his release on bail -- in order to enlist the support of his TV channel, Inter. (Inter is 61 percent owned by Firtash and another oligarch by the name of Sergei Lyovochkin, who served for a time as Yanukovych's chief of staff. It goes without saying, by the way, that Firtash has also used Inter to blacken Kolomoisky's reputation at every opportunity.) In return for providing favorable coverage, Firtash hoped to gain the favor of the future president in his effort to avoid extradition to the United States -- as well as protection against the maneuverings of rival Kolomoisky.

He will need all the help he can get. Kolomoisky's rise since the revolution has been nothing short of spectacular. In March 2014, when the new post-Yanukovych government was desperately casting about for strong local leaders to stem the growth of separatism and to provide financial support to the embattled military, they gave the colorful Kolomoisky an emergency appointment as the governor of the province of Dnepropetrovsk, a traditional Ukrainian power center. A citizen of three countries -- Ukraine, Israel, and Cyprus -- Kolomoisky seized the opportunity to forge a new identity for himself as an ardent defender of Ukrainian sovereignty. His robustly nationalist stance has now transformed him into one of the country's most popular politicians -- despite the Maidan protesters' vow to rid Ukraine of oligarchic power.

Kolomoisky's rise is one of the biggest surprises of post-revolutionary Ukraine. Over the past two decades the oligarch has always found a way to cooperate with whoever ruled over the country. Whether it was cutting deals with former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who was convicted for eight years in the United States for money laundering, or Yanukovych, who allowed Kolomoisky to maintain a stake in the state oil company, Kolomoisky has always managed to adapt to his political surroundings. His flexibility has enabled him to become the fourth-richest man in Ukraine, thanks to his enormous influence in banking and oil; Forbes estimates his wealth at $1.6 billion. Like other oligarchs, he's made much of his money by exploiting his good relations with the government: Even though the government owns 51 percent of the oil and gas conglomerate Ukrnafta, Kolomoisky, who controls the company's management, can largely do as he sees fit -- even siphoning off oil from the state supply system for private business purposes. (The photo above shows pro-Russian separatists attacking a branch of Kolomoisky's PrivatBank in Donetsk in April.)

In his latest incarnation, Kolomoisky has used his wealth and influence to rebrand himself as a populist firebrand. With Ukraine at war in the east, Kolomoisky has vowed to rein in separatism, even creating his own private militia for the purpose, the Dnieper Battalion. This has helped raise Kolomoisky's standing in the eyes of the Ukrainian public and in turn he has positioned himself to be an influential power broker in the "new" Ukraine. But Kolomoisky's forays into populism don't stop there. Recently, he announced a $10,000 bounty for each separatist caught by the battalion. He's even proposed building a wall along the Russian border.

(Kolomoisky has become a favorite target of Kremlin propaganda along the way. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin have publicly traded insults, with Putin calling Kolomoisky "a unique imposter" after the oligarch referred to Putin as a "short schizophrenic.")

Kolomoisky's newfound popularity could well alter the calculus of Ukrainian domestic politics. When Poroshenko was elected to the presidency, he enjoyed such solid electoral support that he could reasonably assume that he'd be able to wield decisive influence over parliament, perhaps even dominating the early parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Yet Kolomoisky's spectacular rise increases the likelihood that the next parliament will be controlled by oligarchs behind the scenes.

Yanukovych and his cronies largely dominated the old legislature. But the next one is likely to see intensified competition from several oligarch-controlled factions. Akhmetov is working to revive Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which draws much of its strength from Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Firtash and Lyovochkin plan to lend their support to three parties (including Udar, the party of ex-heavyweight boxer and current Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko).

The wild card remains Kolomoisky, who has yet to decide whom he will fund -- though it's rumored he's planning to create a nationalist movement drawing on veterans from the fight against the rebels. Kolomoisky is certainly poised to capitalize on the current weakness of the central government. Many Ukrainians are eagerly casting about for a strong leader, and for some it's Kolomoisky who fits the bill. Poroshenko might be tempted to strip Kolomoisky of his position as governor, but it's already too late for that. Such a move would only make a martyr out of Kolomoisky and give his supporters fuel leading into the election.

It's clear, in any case, that Ukraine's business elites continue to shape the country's political agenda despite the wishes of the Maidan revolutionaries to the contrary. With parliamentary elections set for October, Poroshenko will have to decide if he really wants to fight the corruption that brought so many Ukrainians out into the streets -- or content himself with the oligarch politics of old.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images